This piece is again brought to you by my friend, and editor, Shane Dayton. It is the third piece in our series of posts discussing the Cyclones hire of new coach Matt Campbell. If you haven't already, check out the first and second posts in the series.
When Paul Rhoads was fired after several poor seasons that seemed littered with "so close but so far away" losses, the hiring of Matt Campbell was quickly pounced upon as a home run hire. I took the other direction of wondering why Iowa State would pass over coaches with proven unique offensive systems, or a history of succeeding at programs that do more with less. In other words, I didn't see where all the excitement was coming from and at first glance wondered where all the excitement was coming from.
At the very least I wanted to see some evidence of any kind that this hire was different, especially in light of the legitimate concern that we just hired a coach who has won with more and never faced the challenge of building a program that is a have-not in a conference full of haves. In other words, I was waiting before drinking the Kool-Aid.
While it's way too early to make a strong statement either way prior to a few seasons of work, based on how the team hit the ground running in only 9 weeks of work, I have to admit my concerns may have been misplaced. While it will take years to see how this truly plays out, could we be seeing the next Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh starting out at I-State? I'm not ready to go that far but I've come from being thoroughly unimpressed to more excited than I've ever been as a Cyclones fan – and the Cyclone football staff has definitely set up a level of excitement I think few fans would have believed even a few months ago.
Setting the Table
I'm always wary of the opening press conferences because it's easy to say the right things and thump your chest. After all, if a head coach doesn't think he can crush it off the bat, he doesn't have the necessary moxie to be a successful head coach. However, it's still nice to hear from the early rumors and reports that there were no obvious red flags or reservations, and that these guys seemed set on putting their culture together.
Rumor had it in one of the very first meetings with the team Coach Campbell held up a list of 30 guys who had missed even one class that week, and he immediately demanded to know why, making it abundantly clear that wasn't acceptable even once and the coaches would talk with each one. Campbell's passion for coaching at Iowa State and his emphatic "We are THE Big 12 option in the Midwest" sounded good, though also possibly naïve until his first recruiting class backed that up (more on that in a moment).
The first reports after workouts were all the same from players: they couldn't believe the difference and to a Facebook update, Tweet, and conversation seemed to believe that they were going to be stronger than they have ever been by the time the season began.
Finally, above all, Matt Campbell's use of social media, and of the entire staff, has been nothing short of amazing. They pulled in visits from recruits who previously wouldn't give I-State the time of day, and gained attention fast for their ability to build genuine excitement and momentum.
For the first time, Iowa State is actually appearing like a confident and powerful brand, and the use of hashtags on Twitter have been nothing short of quality rallying cries and confidence like:
There's a lot that can be said about the staff Campbell has. He brought most of his staff with him, though OC Candle ended up taking over Toledo as head coach. However, most of the coaching staff either was with Campbell in Toledo or had worked with him at some point. For once we have a coaching staff that is on the same page from day one. While the emphasis on coaching and recruiting is huge – Campbell has been adamant that if you can't recruit you can't coach on his staff – there are a few in particular I want to focus on.
First, RB coach (and now assistant head coach) Lou Ayeni in two years with the Cyclones proved himself one of the best recruiters, a great developer of talent, and one of the best position coaches on Paul Rhoads's staff. Keeping him was a major positive. Also encouraging from my point of view was Campbell interviewing former QB coach and OC Todd Sturdy. Although he didn't hire Sturdy, his willingness to look at an outside coach who showed some skills and recruiting ability shows a hunger to find the best talent available.
Two coaches who have come with Campbell really stand out:
QB Coach Jim Hofher has a long history of success, and Darryl Johnston even wanted him as a head coach at his alma mater Syracuse. Iowa State fans know the pain of freshmen quarterbacks who look great, then get worse every year. Hofher knows how to develop quarterbacks, and a comment by JUCO signee and former Top 10 QB recruit Jacob Park said he learned more in a few hours with Hofher than years of coaching and playing elsewhere. That is exactly what I-State needs.
Even the most critical Iowa State fan was willing to give Coach Campbell the benefit of the doubt in year one. After all, he only had 65 days, and only 23 where staff could travel. He even pointed out that on half those travel days they didn't have a full staff. Instead of a thrown together class, they ended up with the highest rated recruiting class Iowa State has had since tracking began in 2008.
That bears repeating. Coming off a 3-9 season at a program with no tradition and only 65 total days, they landed the most highly rated recruiting class they have ever pulled in.
Even more stunning, his first recruit was a 2017 3-star athlete out of the state of Iowa. News came shortly after that of a graduate transfer OL, and although Tyler Catalina decided to eventually go with Georgia instead, this showed an ability to find and identify talent quickly. Things would get better for Iowa State on the recruiting front.
A healthy JUCO class included multiple 3-star players who will instantly compete at OL and DB, and included several impressive players with multiple offers. Many people were surprised (myself included) when Campbell allowed/encouraged most of the previous recruits under Rhoads to walk away. After all, this was a patchwork class with a staff way behind, right? But they kept the few they really wanted to stay and would end up signing a stunning 29 recruits.
The Midwest recruiting strategy worked, and recruits were poached from multiple schools, and a slew of high quality 3 and 4-star players were signed. Even more encouraging, there were multiple highly rated 3 and 4-star players who were Top 100 in the nation at their position…and they visited, had Iowa State in the top three, and at least two were really looking at Iowa State as the favorite despite their late status until a dream school came in last second to land them.
The 29 recruits came from over 20 different states (half of them from the Midwest) - something that is very unusual for an Iowa State recruiting class. The 29 recruits came from over 20 different states (half of them from the Midwest) - something that is very unusual for an Iowa State recruiting class. Even more important, unlike past years where there were one or two "wow" guys and a lot of “eh”, this class has multiple prospects to get excited about including (stars here based on Rivals.com – several of these guys are more highly rated by ESPN and Scout.com) 4* OL Sean Foster, 3* TE Chase Allen (beat out Nebraska, Florida State, and Michigan), 3* ATH Deshaunte Jones, 3* DB Lonnie Johnson (JUCO), 3* DB D'Andre Payne (JUCO), and 3* WR Jalen Martin, among many others. These aren't just run of the mill three stars, these are guys who have the tape to suggest they are (or will be) really serious playmakers.
That doesn't even look at the signing day coup of signing both 3* Bailey brothers, including sniping JaQuan (Florida de-commit) from Virginia Tech, who thought they had him. 3* DE Jerrion Nelson was a complete surprise that somehow managed to stay quiet until signing day, and 2* Zeb Noland (3* via ESPN who considered him an exceptional prospect) is a QB Alabama was looking at, but the Clones got him.
The class was rated 44th by Rivals, 46th by Scout, and similarly by Athlon and ESPN. This is about 25 spots higher than normal on a good year and doesn't include 4* QB Jacob Park since he's a transfer. Between JUCOs, freshman signees, and transfers, there are 5 players in this class who were rated 4* coming out of high school. Iowa State didn't bring in that much 4* talent from 2010-2015 combined.
Pulling talent from everywhere
Even not counting Catalina, news kept coming in of more talent showing up. Former 3* recruit and former N.C. State commit Troy Vincent, son of the NFL corner, walked on – not even taking a scholarship. So did a little heralded 3* JUCO QB from out west. Walk-on invitations were given to hard working players at Iowa Western Community College, building that pipeline and bringing in guys who wanted to compete.
Even during the rushed recruiting time, coaches shot out over 100 scholarship offers to 2017 recruits, and even pushed dozens of offers out to 2018 recruits. Preferred walk-on and regular walk-on offers were shot out throughout Iowa, actively pushing for athletes to bring up the competition and look at working on becoming a future Cyclone.
Many high school coaches in Iowa commented on hearing more from this coaching staff in a few months than they heard from the previous staff in the entire time they coached at State. There was no denying the energy, the excitement, and the commitment to finding football talent everywhere was bringing in an abundance of talent that wasn't even being counted in an already stunning signing class – even if it was filling out the roster. People were walking on who previously wouldn't come short of a scholarship – and sometimes not even then. The level of talent is unlike anything Cyclone fans are used to seeing.
While, as with any class, we'll have to wait to see how it all pans out, this ultra-aggressive recruiting and ability to connect with recruits and open pipelines for walk-ons and recruits alike is beginning to make this Cyclone fan wonder just what is possible – especially when these guys have years to build recruiting relationships and get a few bowl wins under their belt?
Could the sky really be the limit?
The Challenges Ahead
This doesn't mean the future is without challenges. The Big 12's round robin scheduling is brutal, and an annual game with Iowa makes that schedule all the harder for the Cyclones every single season. Add in the fact that Iowa State is the most difficult football program in the country to build because of its unique challenges, and Coach Campbell will have plenty working against his success.
All that still being true, I find myself saying something that seemed inconceivable to me a few months ago:
I’m buying it. For the moment, I'll start drinking the Kool-Aid.
Welcome! My name is Chris Spooner. I am an overly-passionate Dolphins fan who has many opinions about his team, and the sports landscape as a whole. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy voicing them.